The people's parties

The sun may not be shining, but there's one sure sign that summer is here: the festival season has started. Mark Steel loosens up for Glastonbury, Womad and T in the Park by letting his hair down at the Fleadh – and argues that such celebrations are every bit as important to the national psyche as the royal jubilee
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The Independent Culture

What must you imagine happens at an Irish festival if you only know Ireland from its modern brand image? If, for example, you imagine that an "Irish pub" is one of those places that shuts down for three days and reopens covered in yellow paint with a saddle in the window, and maybe has potatoes scattered across the floor and a name like O'Doherty's. You'd assume that the Irish rock festival in Finsbury Park would involve a craggy bloke in a cap playing a violin, while his roadies were a hurling team, and the band's transport was half a dozen grey horses galloping on their way to Seven Sisters underground station. And the stalls would sell broth and cabbage and weak beer with a three-inch lining of creamy froth and be called "Tipperary bitter (it's a grand sup, so it is)".

What must you imagine happens at an Irish festival if you only know Ireland from its modern brand image? If, for example, you imagine that an "Irish pub" is one of those places that shuts down for three days and reopens covered in yellow paint with a saddle in the window, and maybe has potatoes scattered across the floor and a name like O'Doherty's. You'd assume that the Irish rock festival in Finsbury Park would involve a craggy bloke in a cap playing a violin, while his roadies were a hurling team, and the band's transport was half a dozen grey horses galloping on their way to Seven Sisters underground station. And the stalls would sell broth and cabbage and weak beer with a three-inch lining of creamy froth and be called "Tipperary bitter (it's a grand sup, so it is)".

My generation was raised to believe that Irish culture meant Val Doonican. We'd vaguely heard of Joyce and Brendan Behan, and we'd definitely heard of Wilde though we didn't know he was Irish, but if an Englishman had attended a night of Irish culture in 1967, he'd have asked for his money back if he didn't get "Paddy McGinty's Goat".

The Republican alternative to this hasn't always looked appealing either, offering songs that seem to go: "In 1802, brave Dermot O'Flannery/ Was shot by a musket from Lord Cornwallis's troops/ and where his young heart lay slain we still call today/ The Dermot O'Flannery car accessory shop."

The Fleadh confounds both these images, (except that it's called the "Fleadh", pronounced "flar"). There is an instant sense of Irishness, tricolours flapping in every direction, giant inflatable hammers in the colour of the Irish flag, and the headline act is the Pogues. And plenty of people are drunk, staggeringly, comedy drunk, lifting a foot and then making several attempts before finding some ground on which to put it back. When the bands are playing, a drunk crowd at the front dives into each other, yet no one ever falls down, as if everyone knows by instinct the precise angle at which they must all collide in order to keep the whole group standing, in the same way bees somehow know how to make the perfect honeycomb.

But the Fleadh is anything but exclusively Irish; it's the blend of Irish and international that makes it an attraction. Last weekend, as well as the Pogues there was Joe Strummer, the Asian band Cornershop, the peculiar Scottish duo the Proclaimers, and the magnificent south-London country group the Alabama 3. And the food was Mexican and Creole, and Caribbean and Japanese, and all lacking in spuds. Perhaps in an attempt to make a statement, one lad personified this mix, tricolour draped and knotted diagonally across him while carrying a didgeridoo. I asked him where he'd got his didgeridoo, and he looked at me in that glazed drunk stupor where the odd threads of functioning brain try to decipher the question, the human equivalent of a computer that's just been switched on going "ber ber ber-ber-ber- berrrr". Eventually, he said something like, "Comes from boordit bought it got it got it in a shop didgeri didgeridoo shop". Alluding to the fact that he was covered in mud, he said, "I I fell I flova fell fell over". Then came the unexpected part; he was able to play the didgeridoo – full on "wuuwawa wuuwawa" – while swaying in all directions.

More coherently, Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six, who spent 17 years in jail after being wrongly convicted of pub-bombing, was preparing to go on stage with the Alabama 3, where his role was to deliver a speech across some haunting country slide guitar. He improvises his lyrics every night but never stumbles for a fraction of a syllable as he bellows lines such as, "Not one member of the Establishment has been convicted of a single offence for what they did to us". The most impressive part of this performance is how well it works musically, this unexpected cultural fusion of Tennessee rhythm and angry Belfast polemic. But it fits the event perfectly, because it answers one of the problems with the way Ireland has been seen over the last 30 years, as culturally and politically distinct from the rest of the world. For example, the beginning of "the Troubles" is usually seen as an Irish Republican battle. But it was understood by most people involved at the time as part of the worldwide civil-rights movement that included Martin Luther King and the people of Vietnam.

Or there's the Pogues themselves, an Irish version of the international trend in the 1980s to mix traditional styles with rock, making Shane MacGowan nearer to the Bhundu Boys than Val Doonican. And to the current generation of Irish youth, the idea of Ireland as quaint and quirky and dominated by violins, betting shops and priests must seem as ridiculous as the US view of the English as a nation of Hugh Grants.

Up until the 1970s, the signal for the start of any game of Gaelic football had to be given by a priest. The modern equivalent is unlikely to happen, as today's Irish youth is more likely to go to a nightclub than play Gaelic football, and you can't see the Dublin Ministry of Sound agreeing to a rule whereby no rave can start until the priest has popped the first "E". Ten years ago, the Virgin shop in Dublin was prosecuted for selling condoms; now, the government spends half a million pounds a year promoting them. Bertie Ahern has just been re-elected as prime minister, despite having an unmarried long-term relationship that a while ago would have consigned him to an eternity of molten misery.

These trends, combined with the effect of the booming Irish economy that has attracted thousands of emigrants to return home may be the reason why events such as the Fleadh attract much smaller crowds than they once did. The crowd that did turn up last week was also older than might once have been expected. Maybe this accounts for the temporary plastic flooring that covered much of the grass in front of the main stage. The purist in me thought, "Plastic bloody flooring! It's an outdoor rock gig for God's sake! Next year, I suppose you'll get us all to sit on a giant three-piece suite and the tickets will ask us not to bring red wine as you've just bought new carpets!".

Attempts are being made to create an up-market version of rock festivals, such as the Babington House gig this summer that boasts, "an abundance of loos, showers and running water". Which shows how basic the traditional festival sites are, when all you need to get a yuppie image is a kazi and a sink. For there will be people snarling, "Oh, I see, dock leaves and tapeworms not good enough for you I suppose". There will always be someone to fire off accusations such as, "Oh, not too socialist to use a toilet then! You come out with all these egalitarian principles but you don't want to go in a hole in the ground, do you?".

More worrying could be the promise to set up a marquee offering Mumm champagne and a helicopter service to avoid walking through the mud. At the very least, the champagne should be sold round the back of a tent, in cellophane wrapping, by a bloke in a poncho with a goatee beard who then disappears leaving everyone who has bought some to complain that it has been mixed with lemonade and is nowhere near as good as the Moët et Chandon gear you used to get back in the Sixties. And when the helicopter pilots ask where the passengers want to go, the answer should be, "aheeee, huh, huh, oh, right yeah, go, just, we to wherever". *

But I doubt whether the luxury festival is the threat to tradition that its organisers hope for. Because the attraction of a music festival is its naughtiness. Teenagers go because their parents would be appalled. And once you're not prepared to face a squelchy puddle or two, there's no point in going. Various articles have been written about the champagne-and-helicopter festivals, as if they provide further proof that the radicals of the Sixties and Seventies have travelled the natural, inevitable path of exchanging ideals for mud-free clothing.

But if you look at the bill for these events, its headliners are acts such as Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Natalie Imbruglia, who would never be on the main stage at a helicopter-less festival anyway. The only act that might straddle both camps is Ozzy Osbourne, though even then it's hard to imagine the middle classes muttering, "I always find the 1956 vintage offers the finest bouquet to go with 'War Pigs'."

In fact, the stance of most musicians who would have played at festivals 20 years ago offers an encouraging sign of the endurance of musical rebellion. For the main stars likely to appear at any grand bubbly-infested festival are the same ones to whom punk was directed in the first place – Queen, Rod Stewart, Elton John and so on, as if you can take seriously the music of anyone who's done an advert for the Post Office.

So, I'll save my disillusionment for the day my ticket for Joe Strummer advises : "black tie only – sherry will be served during 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais'." That certainly wasn't the case last weekend, as he kerchinked through "Police and Thieves", some people affectionately lobbed their cardboard cups full of beer, so that in the twilight, thousands of alcoholic droplets flickered individually to "running the nation with their – boom boom – guns and ammunition". The lad behind me decided to pour a full pint on my back. Six rows from the front, a couple in their forties laid on the plastic flooring asleep. They didn't even come round for "London's Burning".

It makes you realise there might be someone who can boast they were there, when Hendrix first did the Star Spangled Banner, but was spark out through the whole thing. And someone who was at the famous Sex Pistols gig in the 100 Club who was woken by his mates at the end of the night and spluttered, "Oh, sod it, have I missed them?"More typically, between songs would be the calls for the favourites, as if Strummer was likely to say "ah yes I'd clean forgot about 'Protex Blue', thank you for reminding me".

The Pogues were brilliant as ever, with Shane looking as if he's got six months left just as he has for the last fifteen years, pelting out the confusion and indignation of Irishness that is his lyrics, combined in lines such as, "Wherever we go we celebrate the land that made us refugees", and everyone danced and sang and dropped their didgeridoos, and one lad, covered in mud with just holes for the eyes and mouth, summoned up all his concentration to fight through his paralytic trance and yell "Do 'Dirty Old Town', you toothless bastard!"

But there was something in the atmosphere beyond going back to see old favourite bands for the 20th time. Most people must have been aware to at least some extent that being here at all was a statement. For a few days earlier was the alternative gig, the royal grovel-fest featuring the rottenness of lighter-waving stadium sycophancy, where all the creepy tunesmiths serving the sales managers and Neighbourhood Watch secretaries, who like to pretend they're still in touch with their youth by playing Fleetwood Mac and Dire Straits, could jiggle their suburban bones and discuss their mortgages.

And that said something. It may be 25 years since punk and 20 years since the first Pogues album and we may not have changed the world, but we're still here. Most of the grubby outfits in search of their knighthoods were already the enemy in 1977, but characters like Shane MacGowan and Joe Strummer are still thrilling crowds in muddy, albeit slightly plastic fields.

More importantly, the audience is still there as well. We haven't all gone off to be estate agents or ambassadors, or to announce that now we've grown up we like things not so loud. And, at least in the case of Joe himself, he's still looking forward more than backward. One of the highlights of the gig was his song about the asylum- seekers who suffocated in the lorry coming into Dover, performed with the same passion that led him to create his glorious fusion of punk and reggae 25 years ago.

During another of Strummer's reggae numbers, a man to my right, dressed as a bookie, about 40 with sideburns, a cloth cap, a long, shiny, brown-leather jacket and unfeasibly polished shoes given the overwhelming amount of mud, sang as loud as he could in a deep London accent and with a perfect reggae beat, "A lot o'people gonna have ta stand up an' fight": a true Irishman.


Turweston Aerodrome, Northants
22 June
Performers include: Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada, Paul Oakenfold, Pete Tong, Paul van Dyck, Carl Cox, Sasha, Roni Size

The Sheffield superclub takes to the road and serves up a recreation of that early-Nineties illegal rave atmosphere by setting up next to an airstrip. Expect large crowds of chemically assisted revellers tirelessly amusing themselves to hours of repetitive beats from some of the world's top DJs.


Worthy Farm Pilton
28-30 June
Line-up out on 19 June, but rumoured to include Rod Stewart, Roger Waters, Charlatans and Nelly Furtado
"Don't attempt to come without a ticket" screams the publicity for the grandaddy of all festivals. The perennial problem of fence-jumpers is due to be addressed at last and with it comes a more corporate flavour. There will still be the jugglers, acid casualties and, inevitably, mud, but if you've got the money you can drop in by helicopter and insulate yourself from the sodden masses.


Safeway Picnic 2002
29 June
Hyde Park, London
Performers: Gabrielle, Rod Stewart, Ronan Keating, Diana Ross, Shirley Bassey
The perceived benefits of a rural festival without those little annoyances (traffic jams, chemical toilets, people with dogs on strings), aimed at devotees of middle-of-the-road balladry. Bring your picnic rug, lashings of elderflower cordial (alcohol not permitted) and cucumber sandwiches and settle down for the afternoon. Pay extra for a VIP ticket and you'll also get ­ wait for it ­ a free show programme and a souvenir gift.


T in the Park
Balado by Kinross
13 & 14 July
Performers: Oasis, Primal Scream, Gomez, No Doubt, Starsailor, the Dandy Warhols, Basement Jaxx, Morcheeba, Foo Fighters, Chemical Brothers, Air, Doves, the Beta Band, Mercury Rev etc
Festival-goers in Scotland are no longer ostracised from the summer beer and rock circuit as T in the Park continues to thrive. Last year's (largely rain interrupted) highlights included David Gray and Coldplay. But can the brothers Gallagher still cut it after their long break from the music biz?


Womad Festival
Rivermead, Reading
26-28 July
Performers include: Cara Dillon, Ernest Ranglin, Orchestra Baobab, Rachid Taha
Begun under the conceptual wing of Peter Gabriel in 1982, the aim behind the World of Music Arts and Dance was to unite the best musicians from across the world in a weekend jamboree. Expect a colourful foray into the cultural diversities of the world, attended by bright-eyed "more-obscure-than-thou" devotees draped in tie-dyed smocks. Not to be confused with this...


Carling Weekend
Reading and Leeds Festivals
23-25 Aug
The Strokes, Foo Fighters, Prodigy, Ash, Pulp, The White Stripes, The Dandy Warhols, Slipknot
Having started out as a jazz and blues festival in the early Sixties, the Reading Festival (and its more recent twin in Leeds) has evolved into a stage-diving, beer-swilling and almost certainly sunburnt spectacular. Four live music stages, every flavour of rock, all washed down with the nation's favourite pint. One of the highlights last year was Marilyn Manson.